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'All that sacrifice, all that horror' of Vietnam War


IT'S ONLY been 25 years, but the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, like the whole Vietnam War that preceded it, feels as if it happened in a galaxy long ago and far away. Maybe that's because, though it was a big war that killed lots of people, it wasn't really about anything important.

The strategic context now seems ludicrous. Not only has the entire Cold War come to seem distant and strange, but the vision of Asian dominoes falling one by one that fueled the American intervention in Vietnam -- if Vietnam falls, then so must Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines -- was manifest nonsense. None of them fell or even tottered.

The political context seems even more antique. The Americans and their Vietnamese opponents were driven by the same ideological delusion: that communism (as the leaders in Hanoi devoutly believed and the decision-makers in Washington secretly feared) was the wave of the future. But it was the wave of the past, spending the last of its force on the beaches of Vietnam.

The 1970s was the last decade in which communism, already viewed as a dangerous dinosaur in Europe, could still be seen as a successful and attractive ideology even in the further reaches of Asia. By the end of the 1980s, the Communist world was a stagnant and much shrunken backwater awaiting capitalist redevelopment, while the non-communist parts of Asia were the most rapidly growing countries on the planet.

Even politically, Southeast and East Asia were joining the mainstream: The nonviolent shift to democracy started in the Philippines in 1986, transformed Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan, and finally reached Indonesia in 1998. Whereas even today, the cadres brook no opposition to their rule in Hanoi, and Vietnam has become an Asian version of Cuba -- economically hopeless and politically backward, though still the beneficiary of much romantic goodwill in the more prosperous and freer parts of the world.

It is a stunningly petty outcome for a war that at the time aroused such passion around the world. An entire generation in Asia, Europe and North America cut its political teeth on the Vietnam War (Africa, Latin America and the Middle East were more distracted by their own problems). You could even say that Vietnam gave the Sixties -- which actually ran from about 1965 to 1973 -- their unifying cultural theme.

More than 2 million Vietnamese were killed, plus 58,000 Americans and smaller numbers of Australians, South Koreans and other foreigners. An entire country was devastated, and phrases like "free-fire zone," "defoliation" and "pain threshold" entered the language. Two neighboring countries, Cambodia and Laos, were dragged into the fighting, and in Cambodia's case, it ended in genocide. All that misery, all that sacrifice, all that horror.

People hate it when history makes no sense, so they strive valiantly to give the Vietnam War a meaning commensurate with its cost. For the Vietnamese and especially for their neighbors, this often involves treating the current Vietnamese regime with a reverence that is completely unjustified in terms of its accomplishments.

For Americans, it generally revolves around the "lessons" about public sensitivity to casualties and the limitations of U.S. power that were allegedly learned from Vietnam. But those lessons had been learned in Korea in the early 1950s and would have been learned again in any large-scale American military intervention anywhere else in the world in the 1960s. The brutal truth is that the Vietnam War did not matter very much.

Korea and Vietnam were originally divided by wars that arose out of rivalries between the victors in World War II. By 1953 in Korea, and by 1956 in Vietnam, the countries were formally partitioned by the cease-fires that ended those wars. In Korea's case, that is where matters stand to this day.

In Vietnam, by contrast, the fighting started up again in a small way in the late 1950s. That happened mainly because the South Vietnamese military was less competent, both politically and militarily, than the South Korean military (perhaps because its basic ethos derived from a lazy and corrupt French colonial regime, not an austere and efficient Japanese one). But it need not have ended with the fall of Saigon.

The huge U.S. military intervention of the late 1960s increased the scale of the war and devalued the nationalist credentials of the Saigon government, but the Americans were all gone again by 1973, and at that point, the North Vietnamese were very far from victory. The South Vietnamese army was still in control of all urban and almost all farming areas. It was not even totally demoralized.

It was, however, totally Americanized, which meant that it was addicted to using massive amounts of firepower and was dependent on massive amounts of munitions that only the United States could provide. When Congress, in its haste to put all recollection of the lost war behind it, refused to keep the administration's promises to maintain the lavish flow of military aid to Vietnam, morale there went down the toilet very fast. The end, in April 1975, was a rout that saw remarkably little fighting.

And what would a divided Vietnam look like today, if it had gone the other way? Nobody knows, but you might well start by looking at the contrast between today's South Korea and North Korea.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles have been published in 45 countries.

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